Living Libraries

I have rediscovered the gift of libraries during the pandemic.

My love of libraries goes straight back to my childhood. I have fond memories of wandering through the central library in my hometown – the building now razed – and the joy of pulling a book at random from the shelf to read its inside flap or puzzle at the cover art. The treasure hunt of using the online card catalog to find just the right book, then sleuthing it out on the shelves. The rapture of rediscovering books I’d devoured thanks to my school libraries. Then, later, when time was at a premium, we went mostly to the library branch not far from our house. The building was far less grand but the trips were no less exciting, especially when I was old enough to drive myself there to spend a quiet moment picking up holds, perusing the shelves, and pondering my own future writing career.

I have a deep love of librarians, too. To be sure, they scare me a little bit, with their seemingly endless knowledge of books and authors, their suggestions about where to look for an evasive piece of information, but it’s the “sadder but wiser girl for me.” I’m a superfan of “The Music Man,” which means I’m prone to believe that the Marians the Librarians of the world have the right worldview – updated, of course, to the twenty-first century.

Whenever we have moved – and I’ve moved quite a bit as an adult – our first order of business has been to acquire a library card. One of the perks of my job in Philadelphia was that I could keep a Free Library of Philadelphia card despite no longer living in the City of Brotherly Love: they allow a local business address to serve as a perfectly serviceable reason for a library card. (Providing access to books—If that’s not love, I don’t know what is.)

When the world closed down, the digital libraries did not. I could no longer visit our local library’s building, but I could still access its treasures—and the treasures of two other libraries where my card was still in good standing. I read incessantly. In the toughest months, I maxed out my loan limits on Hoopla and my hold limits on Libby; I grazed films Kanopy with the aim of feeling like I was still connecting with the world.

These days, as the world has opened back up again and my own life has shifted to include more and more children’s books, I am interested in libraries in new ways. Our local library has a playroom where our child sometimes has the opportunity to play with other kids (though this opportunity is, admittedly, absolutely terrifying given what I now understand and imagine about epidemiology and disease transmission), as well a story and music time for toddlers. It has whole shelves of board books for babies and a program that encourages children to read 1000 books before kindergarten (ours read 1000 books before age 1).

I also have come to crave the recommendations of lay librarians – other parents who have also read 1000 books each 10,000 times apiece. Recently I posted a request in one active Facebook group for suggestions for children’s books featuring cows and/or mail carriers. I expected one or two recommendations; I got dozens. I promptly looked each one up in our local library system, which of course had them all. The generosity of knowledge embedded in these suggestions was expansive, and reminiscent of the goodness shown to me by the librarians of my childhood: no judgment, just a willingness to help a kid find exactly the book he wants. And that’s a huge gift.

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